Refining Value Sensitive Design: A (Capability-Based) Procedural Ethics Approach to Technological Design for Well-Being

Alessandra Cenci*, Dylan Cawthorne

*Corresponding author for this work

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Fundamental questions in value sensitive design include whether and how high-tech products/artefacts could embody values and ethical ideals, and how plural and incommensurable values of ethical and social importance could be chosen rationally and objectively at a collective level. By using a humanitarian cargo drone study as a starting point, this paper tackles the challenges that VSD’s lack of commitment to a specific ethical theory generates in practical applications. Besides, it highlights how mainstream ethical approaches usually related to VSD are incapable of solving main ethical dilemmas raised by technological design for well-being in democratic settings. Accordingly, it is argued that VSD’s ethical-democratic import would substantially be enhanced by the espousal of a procedural ethics stance and the deliberative approach to value and welfare entailed by Amartya Sen’s capability approach. Differently from rival ethical–political theories, its normative and meta-ethical foundations better handle human diversity, value-goal pluralism, conflicting vested interests as well as the epistemic-moral disagreements typical of contemporary complex democracies. Particularly, Sen’s capability approach procedural-deliberative tenets result in an “objective-impartial” choice procedure selecting a “hierarchy” of plural incommensurable values and rational goals thus, suitable to validate an applied science such as welfare-oriented technological design in concrete social environments. Conclusions suggest that refining VSD with a capability-based procedural approach to ethics fosters the concern for democracy and social justice while preserving vital scientific-technical standards. Major advantages are at an applied level to delivering ethically and socially justified, but yet highly functional technologies and high-tech products/artefacts.

Original languageEnglish
JournalScience and Engineering Ethics
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18. May 2020


  • Amartya sen’s capability approach
  • Democracy
  • Participatory-deliberative methods
  • Procedural ethics
  • Technological design for well-being
  • Value sensitive design (VSD)

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